Writer: D'Lyn Ford
LAS CRUCES -- Cooler temperatures in the post-holiday season find many New Mexicans tired and sluggish, much like the soil in most vegetable gardens this time of year. The cure -- preparing the soil for spring -- benefits both garden and gardener.
"This time of year, the soil in many vegetable gardens looks like most of us feel," said George Dickerson, horticulture specialist with New Mexico State University's Cooperative Extension Service. "The cure for tired soil is a good dose of organic matter, preferably compost. Unlike peat moss, compost is alive with microorganisms that help rejuvenate the soil."
New Mexico soils vary in texture from sand to silt to fine clay. Loams are mixtures of the different types. Sandy soils tend to be low in fertility and do not hold water well. Clay soils usually have poor drainage and become sticky when wet.
"Adding compost to any Southwestern soil will help improve its structure," Dickerson said. "In sandy soils, organic matter improves water-holding capacity and the ability to retain nutrients for plant uptake. In clay soils, aeration and drainage are improved."
Incorporating a 1- to 2-inch layer of compost also will add some nutrients to the soil. "Most soils will require additional fertilizer for maximum crop production," he said.
Apply phosphorous fertilizers with the compost and till into the soil. Unlike nitrogen fertilizers, most phosphorous fertilizers will not dissolve readily in water, so they need to be placed in the root zone.
"Compost is a great source of micronutrients, which are generally lacking in most major fertilizer sources," Dickerson said. "The nutrients in compost also are in an organic form, which makes them slowly available for plant uptake over a longer period of time."
After tilling compost and fertilizer into the soil, rake the garden smooth to remove any rocks or large pieces of organic matter that have not been fully composted. Prepare the beds for spring vegetable planting by creating straight rows using a string stretched between two stakes.
When planting time comes, carve shallow furrows in the rows using the edge of a hoe. "Planting depth and spacing varies with the vegetable," he said. Read each seed package for further directions.
A good rule of thumb is to plant seeds at a depth of four times their diameter. Pat the soil firmly in place over the seeds to ensure good contact.
Preparing the garden for spring crops gives the soil a boost and also reactivates gardeners' bodies with a little outdoor exercise.
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